Un-famous American masterpiece by un-famous composer coming to Westchester
by Angela Usobiaga for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 15, 2012

John Knowles PaineAaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky and John Knowles Paine all have something in common: all four were among the composers, musicians and educators inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 1998. Why are the names of the first three so universally known, while Paine -- a composer, musician and educator -- is known only to a handful of the musically erudite? Why did it take over 100 years after its completion for the first large-scale work for chorus and orchestra by an American -- the Mass in D by John Knowles Paine -- to be recorded? Why haven't we had more opportunities to hear this little-known masterpiece? The answer to all these questions is that timing is everything.

Born in Portland, Maine in 1837, the son of a musician and organ builder, Paine showed great promise as a keyboardist and composer. He began his musical training at age thirteen, studying organ, piano, harmony and composition with a German mentor, Hermann Kotzschmar. Soon he was giving recitals and by age sixteen had written a string quartet. Because America was still a young country of immigrants and its own musical heritage had not yet developed, musicians were usually sent to study in England or Germany, the epicenters of music during the 19th century. Paine, no exception, enrolled at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik to complete his education which grounded him in the style of the European “classicists”: Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

Shortly after his return to the States -- in the early years of the Civil War -- he composed the Mass in D, inspired, no doubt, by the place of liturgical music in European tradition. Upon its completion, he made a calculated decision to debut it in Germany where he was well known for his brilliance as a musician, hoping that a successful European premiere would pave the way for acceptance and success in his homeland. He was, as it turns out, only half right. He personally financed its 1867 premiere in Berlin, receiving rave reviews from German music critics and audiences who at the time viewed America as a rough country of pioneers, miners and industrialists, not artists and musicians. A year later, Paine conducted the American premiere of the Mass in Boston's Music Hall, a performance organized by his friends James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Hill and mathematician Benjamin Pierce. Although the American premiere was also well received, Paine was unable to secure financing for additional American performances of the Mass. Whether it was his young age or if it was dismissed simply because he was not a European composer, the Mass was never again performed in a concert hall in the United States before he died in 1906. An American musical pioneer was not given the honor he deserved in his own country.

Paine's Mass in D is an extraordinary composition for many reasons. When recording the work in 1978 with the St. Louis Symphony and the St. Louis Chorus, conductor Gunther Schuller noted, "How can one explain that an American composer in his early twenties and in a young, not even half-settled land, in a society with as yet only the merest cultural accoutrements (and those imported from Europe at that), could write a work so impressive, so precocious, so technically sophisticated, and so profoundly musical as this Mass? [Nothing] can explain a work of such grandeur and haunting beauty as this Mass, by a composer so young…. The answer lies, as it must in all otherwise inexplicable manifestations of genius or great talent, in the creator himself and in the largely ineluctable mysteries of the creative process itself."

The record's producer, Andrew Raeburn, wrote, "…having listened to the rehearsals, I become more and more excited by this piece -- its scale, its extraordinary intensity, its youthful freshness and daring, and above all its fascinating treatment of the text…. The work's debts to Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Berlioz are obvious, but Paine made a homogeneous personal style out of his influences. There are remarkable moments when one is in the world of the Verdi and Fauré requiems, both written years later…. I believe….that it will stand as a cornerstone of nineteenth-century American music."

In addition to his contribution to music as a composer, John Knowles Paine made an important contribution to American culture as a music educator. Despite numerous obstacles, in 1873 he established a music department at Harvard, the first in an American university, setting the stage for generations of music students in American schools. Harvard's Paine Concert Hall is named in his honor. In addition to all his musical accomplishments, Paine went on to help found the Boston Symphony and the American Guild of Organists.

Paine's importance as the first professor of music at an American institution of higher learning and his influence on generations of students have always given him a special place in the history of American music. However, it took an explosion of US compositional activity during the early part of the twentieth century and a resurgence of interest in early American composers for his legacy as a composer to emerge. The US has fully established its own musical roots and is ready for revivals of some fine 19th and 20th century composers whose works have been ignored, John Knowles Paine among them. One of his successors at Harvard, Murray Forbes Somerville, has made it his mission to perform all of Paine's many compositions and to bring him the recognition he deserves. In May 2000, the Harvard University Choir gave a performance of the Mass in D, the first time it had ever been presented at the University in its entirety. Shortly thereafter, the choir repeated it at the Riverside Church in New York City, and that was the last time it was performed in the greater metropolitan area.

In keeping with its mission of providing audiences with a mix of well-known and little-known but highly accessible choral pieces that span the entire choral repertoire, the Westchester-based Hudson Chorale will be honoring John Knowles Paine by performing his Mass in D for its May 5, 2012 concert. Music Director Michael Conley is thrilled at the prospect of conducting the 80-voice chorus with full orchestra and organ for a local audience, most of whom will be hearing it for the first time. Chorus members are equally excited by the prospect of bringing this gift from the past into the present -- from the 19th century to the 21st -- and helping ensure its enduring place in the future.

Maestro Conley will give a pre-concert talk about the composer and his work starting at 7:00 PM prior to the performance. The concert will be held at the Irvington High School, 40 North Broadway, Irvington, NY, at 8:00 PM. Tickets are $25, $10 for students, and can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling (914) 462-3212 or through the website at www.hudsonchorale.org. Irvington High School has ample parking and is handicap accessible.

If you love music -- and want to be part of history -- don't miss this historic performance!

Angela Usobiaga sings with the Hudson Chorale.
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